When I was 26 years old and living in South Africa, I was offered a job that required me to live in the United States. It should have been good news. I had hoped for this job offer for months. But there was a problem: I did not want to leave my partner, whom I had met in South Africa eight months before.
For weeks, I worried about my decision. I wanted to tell my new potential boss about my romantic relationship and ask if I could work from South Africa to stay with him. But many friends thought this would be incredibly risky, even somewhat laughable. They argued that admitting a deep commitment to a romantic relationship would make me look uncommitted to the work. It would imply to my boss that I was foolish. Many thought it could lead to me losing the offer altogether.
But I decided not to take their advice. I called my new boss and told him what was going on: I felt deeply committed to both my partner in South Africa and this job, and I was pleading for a way to have both.
His response? He chuckled a bit and said, “Everybody who’s been in love knows how that goes. Let’s try it out and see if we can make it work.”
I was shocked. (Later, I would find out that my boss had gotten engaged just before we had this conversation, so I may have simply caught him in a particularly romantic stage of his life.)
Throughout my 20s, I had internalized the message that it was irrelevant — and even unprofessional — to speak about your personal life at work. Over the years, I had observed friends and family members hide pregnancies from colleagues, skip college reunions or other celebrations because of conflicting work responsibilities, deny the importance of a family obligation to continue showing up for a time-sensitive project, and generally lie about their personal life in order to be available at all times for their job.
But eventually I learned that our personal and career goals don’t have to be in conflict. In fact, when we acknowledge both, not only do our personal lives become happier but our professional lives become more successful.
How I stopped pretending my personal life didn’t matter at work
In South Africa, I worked at LEAP Science and Maths Schools, a nonprofit that championed the idea that personal growth was professional growth, and vice versa. During meetings with my boss, he would not only talk about my work but also show a level of care toward my personal development.
As a freelancer, I was upfront with him about personal factors that affected my level of involvement with his organization: my romantic relationship, my fear of working far from my family, my desire to make time in my work schedule for my own writing. We would navigate through those concerns together. The relative ease with which we managed these conversations made me question: Why in the past had I thought this wasn’t possible?
As part of my work for LEAP, I was mentored by a woman named Marguerite Callaway, who runs an international leadership development company that defines effective leadership as one that “acknowledges that people are an organization's most important asset” and “reintroduces ethics and values into a leadership role.”
Her training aimed to shift our professional focus from career achievements to overall life goals. During our first session, she asked us to write our core values and then use them to write a “life mission statement” on the overall purpose of our life’s work. She believed this big-picture clarity about our personal intentions would ultimately guide our more concrete professional goal setting, instead of the other way around.
Through our mentorship, she asked these crucial questions: “What do you value most right now?” and “What kind of person are you trying to grow into becoming?” Through answering those larger questions, I could more easily navigate the smaller, daily obstacles of my professional life: when to tolerate a corporate position in exchange for necessary skills and experience, when to consider a loved one’s concern about your professional path and when to ignore their influence, and how to find avenues for meaningful work or a sense of community when a “day job” wasn’t providing that kind of fulfillment.
Marguerite didn’t view personal and professional desires as necessarily conflicting. Instead, she argued that by acknowledging the full range of my desires, I could figure out the healthiest priority to move me forward right now. Instead of telling me — as many others implied in the past — that I had to choose which kind of professional I wanted to be, Marguerite helped me figure out what version of myself each moment of my professional life required.
This is not the same as idealistically believing someone can have it all. Instead it’s about being, as she told me Jungian psychologist Jean Shinoda Bolen called it, a “woman in between” who could “shift gears” and go “from one facet of herself to another.”
Marguerite’s mentorship alleviated much of my anxiety by normalizing the idea that committed professionals could still deeply value many things at once. Hearing a woman — who had several prestigious credentials and accomplishment to her name — validate these ideas convinced me that they could replace what I’d thought “professionalism” had to be.
Fortunately, several studies suggest that businesses succeed more when leaders adopt similar ways of working. In an article for Fast Company, writer Mark Crowley explained how the founders of Google built their company culture around caring for employees’ well-being.
He wrote, “Upending traditional leadership theory, which directs organizations to squeeze as much out of people while paying them as little as possible, Google holds an authentic reverence for its employees, and seeks to not just appeal to their uber-developed minds in motivating performance, but also to their very human hearts.”
Last year, I began doing freelance work for an organization —the Teaching Well — that roots its educational reform work in similar ideas: When schools prioritize teachers’ personal well-being, the teachers perform better. The organization provides teachers with individual mentoring entirely focused on tools and resources for navigating the socio-emotional elements of their work and balancing their work with their personal lives.
“When you can sit with someone long enough to find out what makes them healthy and thriving in their personal life, you are also able to tap into what’s going to be best for your professional relationship,” Teaching Well founder Kelly Knoche told me. “Instead of thinking of mentoring employees in these areas as an extra add-on, we should think of it as a means of being more efficient in accomplishing the work you’re already trying to do.”
Compartmentalizing work and life had never made sense to me — and it doesn’t make sense to a lot of other people either
Working first with Marguerite and then with the Teaching Well made me realize that compartmentalizing my personal and professional lives had always felt unnatural. Since I was young, my life goals had little to do with specific career achievements and more to do with more general personal desires. In school, I once did an exercise where we had to write three dreams we had for the future. While friends wrote, “Become an astronaut,” “Win a Nobel Prize,” and, “Make six figures a year,” I wrote, “Travel,” “Be in love,” and, “Be useful.” I had never wanted to single-mindedly focus on a career but instead had always thought of my goals more holistically.
As a young professional, then, I struggled with the intense specificity many jobs required. When applying for jobs, I couldn’t relate to postings that said an organization searched for someone “obsessed” with their field. In job interviews, anytime I mentioned balance, it seemed to be misinterpreted as a lack of commitment. But if I was honest with myself, I didn’t want to be “obsessed” with any one aspect of my life. I wanted to be equally passionate and devoted to my work as to everything else. I wanted to be professionally successful but also personally happy; productive and useful yet not overexerted; responsible and financially practical while not neglectful of my family, friends, and ethical beliefs.
But before working in South Africa, finding others who viewed professional decisions through that lens was difficult. The casual career advice I would receive generally left me feeling as if personal questions did not matter. Advice instead seemed hyperfocused on external output: What will you produce? What kind of money will be made? What concrete skills will you learn? How far can you advance?
When I began my freelance career, almost all the career advice articles I found also focused on these externalities: how to build marketing skills, how to negotiate prices, how to network, how to manage time most efficiently.
But it didn’t help to only hear about the external practicalities of advancing in my career without also hearing advice on how these practicalities would be internally relevant: What will be personally fruitful about a freelance career? How will this work affect my relationships? How do you emotionally handle the strain of working with clients who don’t share your values? How will this kind of work personally make me grow? Career advice was ineffective when it didn’t take into account these other important priorities in my life.
When I speak with other millennials about what they seek from career mentors, I have heard many express the same concern. A friend of mine who runs a tech startup in San Francisco told me: “Of course, there are parts of mentorship that must be tactical, that deal only with how to get a specific result in your field. But in terms of the bigger-picture questions of my career, any advice has to be in the context about who I am as a person, and what I value. My work is not separate from other parts of my life. It’s all an expression of what I’m trying to bring into the world and what I’m trying to create.”
Surveys suggest we’re not alone: A 2012 New Impact survey found that 58 percent of young workers claimed they would even take a 15 percent pay cut to work for an organization that shared their values.
A college friend of mine who works as a writer and actress in New York told me about a negative experience she had earlier in her career, when she paid for a mentor to advise her on writing and marketing her script. Her mentor advised her to abandon the “avant-garde” and “intellectual/political” nature of her writing, telling her in an email, “Produced playwrights are not writing plays like this. ... You have to write something with a track record in terms of content, a commercial story with an existing audience.”
As someone who valued producing radical work, my friend realized this woman’s advice couldn’t apply. “This woman was a Tony Award-winning producer ... but the career she created for herself is not necessarily one that I wanted,” she told me. “I realized that even if I had as many TV credits and awards as this woman had, though that would obviously make me more financially secure, I actually don’t know if that would make me happier.”
When I began my freelance writing career, perhaps I never actively sought advice from formal career mentors because of a deep-seated skepticism that their advice would also not apply to me. Instead of pointers for how to “navigate the system,” I wanted more insight on how to find work I could be proud of. Instead of learning how to create a financially lucrative career, I wanted to learn how to survive while creating a personally meaningful one.
To be clear, I am not advocating for a romanticized notion of a professional life, in which people never do work that doesn’t personally fulfill them, or refuse to accept work that doesn’t align perfectly with every area of their lives. But I do believe that the best kind of mentoring helps young people balance the necessary evils of professional life with a validation of their personal realities.
Now I try to be guided less by the professional goals I want to accomplish, and more by the person I want to become
Looking back on the decision I made about love and work at 26, you can argue that in some ways, it hardly mattered: The relationship I committed to back then has now ended, and I moved on from that job to other work.
But for me, that decision symbolized the first crucial step in attempting to live an authentic professional life. My professional experiences in South Africa may not necessarily have helped me advance in my field or given me insight on the ins and outs of my industry. But they gave me something that ended up being far more beneficial: They taught me how to stop resisting myself, and instead honor and embrace all the unique — and, yes, often competing — desires I wanted out of my life, while also being responsible and committed in my work.
These days, I don’t experience the same self-doubt and panic about my career (or at least, not nearly as often). I focus less on the daily minutiae of professional life and more on the big-picture ideas of my own sense of purpose. I focus less on career advancement and more on my own personal and professional growth. I worry less about my job and instead reflect more on my life’s work.
As I’m ending my 20s, I find I continue to be guided less by the specific career goals I want to accomplish than by the kind of person I want to be. I hope I can continue finding work that helps keep me on that path.
Amanda Machado is a writer, editor, content strategist, and facilitator who works with publications and nonprofits around the world. You can learn more about her work at her website.